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Monday, 29 July, 2002, 10:17 GMT 11:17 UK
Digital age reaches Melbourne's poor
Mohammed Saleem
Free training is provided for all

Lanai Zhi is in her late twenties, describes herself as Cantonese and in halting English says she came to Australia in 1992. She has never used a computer.

Until now, the digital revolution has completely passed by Lanai, her nine-year-old son and the 2,000 or so other residents of Melbourne's run-down, high-rise Atherton Gardens public-housing estate.

But things are changing for people in the Gardens' four huge tower blocks thanks to a local initiative called Reach For The Clouds.

It aims to deliver to each of 770 homes a refurbished computer completely free of charge, and the chance to get online.

Going online

Andrew Mahar, 45, founding director of the not-for-profit organisation Infoxchange says it is all about making sure already disadvantaged individuals and communities are not left behind in the information age.

Andrew Mahar of Infoxchange
Mahar: People need to go online
"We are moving into a world where more and more government business - community support, welfare, voting - is happening online.

"If people aren't connected, if they're not part of that, they are not part of our society and that's a dangerous position to be in," he says.

"We already have a world that's divided in monetary terms, it is essential we are not also divided by access to information."

The team has already installed servers and wired the whole of Atherton Gardens with an ADSL broadband system - a surprisingly easy task thanks to the tower blocks' extensive system of service ducts.

Residents will be able to use e-mail and a community intranet service free, but will pay to connect to the web.

Recycling computers

Mr Mahar says the idea came to him in 1999 when the Victoria State Government and Melbourne businesses began a wholesale clearout of old PCs ahead of the envisioned Y2K meltdown.

Lanai Zhi
Lanai Zhi: PC helps with son's homework
"We were already refurbishing machines on a small scale to put into community centres but suddenly we found we had a warehouse with thousands of computers," he says.

"Somebody said: 'Wouldn't it be great if we could put one of these into everybody's home?' and I thought why not?"

"It's important to have computers in libraries and so on, but people must be able to access technologies when they need to and not at the good will of a third party."

For Lanai, this means when her son comes home after school. While he is doing his homework, she hopes to watch and learn.

Just connect

Mohammed Saleem has lived in a neighbouring block in the Atherton Gardens for 20 years and is long-term unemployed.

Reach For The Clouds main contributors
A$1.1m Victoria State Govt
A$1.5m free licensed Microsoft software
A$130,000 Hewlett Packard training equipment
A$16,000 GreenPC refurbished computers
He says he wants to listen to radio stations on the net and keep up with news. But mainly he will use e-mail to keep in touch with his family in Pakistan.

"Loneliness is not good," he says. "Now I will learn to communicate with friends, parents, my sisters and brothers, everyone."

What makes Reach For The Clouds unique, Mr Mahar believes, is that once up and running it will become financially self-sustaining.

"We are already running a business offshoot called GreenPC, and when we have finished we think we will have a template that can be taken and made to work anywhere - just like McDonald's restaurants."

Back at the company workshop there are piles of hardware waiting to be repaired tested and cleaned up.

Redundant gear

All of the units going to Atherton Gardens have either 166 MHz or 133 MHz processors loaded with free, licensed Windows 98 and Microsoft Office software.

Computers to be recycled
Out of date computers are refurbished
Although Mr Mahar says there was a good argument for using the Linux operating system, Bill Gates won out in the end, as Windows 98 handled different human languages better and it ties in with what residents are likely to encounter elsewhere.

It seems like ancient technology but GreenPC technicians say it is up to the job and there are several good reasons for giving everybody the same low-end kit:

  • It is free because organisations are happy to give "redundant" machines away
  • Near identical technical specs reduce potential friction from jealous neighbours
  • Effectively flooding the local market makes the machines difficult to resell
It means both GreenPC and the computers in people's homes have a chance of still being there at the end of the project's initial three-year start-up phase.

But there are massive hurdles: a A$4m price tag, language barriers - about 38 different languages are spoken in Atherton Gardens - and providing training and technical support.

The money has come from a variety of sources and basic training is being given free to everyone involved.

Local support

GreenPC says it is recruiting five people from the Gardens, each with different language skills, to provide on-site technical support.

Atherton Gardens in Melbourne
38 languages are spoken in Atherton Gardens
In theory, problems will be dealt with either on the phone or by a home visit. If a fault cannot easily be fixed, the entire machine will be replaced.

Mr Mahar says the long-term plan in Melbourne is for GreenPC to tackle the city's 13 other poor housing developments, using the lessons learned from Atherton Gardens as a template.

"It won't necessarily be me doing this. Once all the hiccoughs and the glitches have been taken out, the next one will be purely a project management rollout," he said.

GreenPC has already won international recognition and is a finalist in this year's e-business category of the Stockholm Challenge awards programme for pioneering IT projects worldwide.

See also:

10 Apr 02 | Business
02 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
25 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
18 Apr 02 | UK
30 Apr 00 | Science/Nature
11 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
16 May 02 | Country profiles
22 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
28 Mar 01 | Business
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